Hit Me Page 8

Dot still called him Keller. And that figured, because that’s who she was calling to talk to. Not Nick Edwards, who fixed houses, but Keller. Who, in a manner of speaking, fixed people.

“The last thing I should be doing,” she went on, “is calling you. There’s two reasons why this is a mistake. First of all, you’re not in the business anymore. I dragged you back in once, that business in Dallas, and it wasn’t your fault that it didn’t go off perfectly. But it wasn’t what you really wanted, and we both agreed it was what the British call a one-off.”

“What does that mean?”

“One time only, I think. What’s the difference what it means? You went to Dallas, you came back from Dallas, end of story.”

But if it was the end of the story, what was this? A sequel?

“That’s one reason,” she said. “There’s another.”


“Three words,” she said. “New. York. City.”


“What am I even thinking, Keller, calling you when I’ve got a job in your old hometown? I didn’t throw New York jobs your way when you lived there, because you lived there.”

“I worked a couple of New York assignments.”

“Just a couple, and they weren’t exactly what you’d call problem-free. But at least you could walk around the city without wearing a mask. Now it’s the one place in the world where it’s not safe for you to be you, where even a waitress in a coffee shop can take a second look at you and reach for a telephone, and here I am calling you with a New York assignment, and that’s as far as this is going, because I’m hanging up.”

“Wait a minute,” Keller said.

The receptionist at Peachpit told him to have a seat, and he leafed through an old auction catalog while he waited. Then a stoop-shouldered man with his sleeves rolled up and his tie loosened came to show him inside and seat him in a stackable white plastic chair at a long table. He had already prepared a slip of paper with the numbers of the lots he wanted to inspect, and he looked them over carefully when they were brought to him.

The stamps were tucked into individual two-inch-square pockets of a chemically inert plastic, each plastic pocket stapled to its own sheet of paper bearing the lot number, estimated value, and opening bid. Keller had brought a pair of tongs, and could have taken out a stamp for closer inspection, but there was no need, and the tongs remained in his breast pocket. Given that the catalog had already shown him clear color photos of all of these stamps, it probably wasn’t necessary that he look at them in the first place. But he’d learned that actually looking at a stamp, up close and personal, helped him decide just how much he really wanted to own it.

He’d requested a dozen lots, all of them stamps he needed, all of them stamps he genuinely wanted—and he didn’t want them any less now that he was getting a look at them. But he wasn’t going to buy them all, and this would help him decide which ones to buy if they went cheap, and which ones deserved a firmer commitment. And, finally, which ones he’d go all out to get, hanging on like grim death, and—

“Hello, there! Haven’t seen you in a while, have I?”

Keller froze in his white plastic chair.

“She loves watching you work with your stamps,” Julia said. “‘Daddy ’tamps,’ she says. She has a little trouble with the s-t combination.”

“I suppose philately is out of the question.”

“For now. But before you know it she’ll be the only kid in her class who knows where Obock is.”

“Just now I was telling her about Kiauchau.”

“I know. But see, I know how to pronounce Obock.”

He was silent for a moment. Then he said, “There’s something we have to talk about.”


They sat at the kitchen table with cups of coffee and he said, “I’ve been keeping something from you, and I can’t do that. Ever since we found each other I’ve been able to say whatever’s been on my mind, and now I can’t, and I don’t like the way it feels.”

“You met someone in Dallas.”

He looked at her.

“A woman,” she said.

“Oh, God,” he said. “It’s not what you think.”

“It’s not?”

If he had to kill this man, how would he do it? He was close to sixty, and he looked soft and pudgy, so you couldn’t call him a hard target. The closest thing Keller had to a weapon was the pair of stamp tongs in his breast pocket, but he’d made do often enough with nothing but his bare hands, and—

“I guess you don’t recognize me,” the fellow was saying. “Been a few years, and it’s safe to say I put on a few pounds. It’s a rare year when I don’t. And the last time we saw each other the two of us were on a lower floor.”

Keller looked at him.

“Or am I wrong? Stampazine? I never missed their auctions, and I’d swear I saw you there a few times. I don’t know if we ever talked, and if I ever heard your name I’ve long since forgotten it, but I’m pretty good with faces. Faces and watermarks, they both tend to stick in my mind.” He stuck out a hand. “Irv,” he said. “Irv Feldspar.”

“Nicholas Edwards.”

“A damn shame Stampazine’s gone,” Feldspar said. “Bert Taub’s health was bad for years, and finally he closed up shop, and then the word got around that he missed the business and wanted to get back into it, and the next thing we knew he was dead.”

“A hell of a thing,” Keller said, figuring something along those lines was expected of him.

“Plenty of other auctions in this city,” Feldspar said, “but you could just show up at Stampazine and there’d be plenty of low-priced material to bid on. No fancy catalogs, no Internet or phone bidders. I don’t think you and I ever bumped heads, did we? I’m strictly U.S. myself.”

“Everything but U.S.,” Keller said. “Worldwide to 1940.”

“So I was never bidding against you, so why would you remember me?”

“I didn’t come all that often,” Keller said. “I live out of town, so—”

“What, Jersey? Connecticut?”

“New Orleans, so—”

“You didn’t come in special for Bert’s auctions.”

“Hardly. I just showed up when I happened to be in town.”

“On business? What kind of business are you in, if I may ask?”

Keller, letting a trace of the South find its way into his speech, explained that he was retired, and then answered the inevitable Katrina questions, until he cleared his throat and said he really wanted to focus on the lots he was examining. And Irv Feldspar apologized, said his wife told him he never knew when he was boring people, and that she was convinced he was suffering from Ass-Backward syndrome.

Keller nodded, concentrated on the stamps.

Julia said, “I knew there was something. Something’s been different ever since you got back from Dallas, and I couldn’t say what it was, so I had to think it was another woman. And you’re a man, for heaven’s sake, and you were on the other side of the state line, and things happen. I know that. And I could stand that, if that’s what it was, and if what happened in Dallas stayed in Dallas. If it was going to be an ongoing thing, if she was important to you, well, maybe I could stand that and maybe I couldn’t.”

“That wasn’t it.”

“No, it wasn’t, was it?” She reached to lay her hand on top of his. “What a relief. My husband wasn’t fooling around with another woman. He was killing her.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“Do you remember the night we met?”

“Of course.”

“You saved my life. I was taking a shortcut through the park, and I was about to be raped and killed, and you saved me.”

“I don’t know what got into me.”

“You saved me,” she said, “and you killed that man right in front of me. With your bare hands. You grabbed him and broke his neck.”


“That was how we met. When Jenny’s old enough to want to know how Mommy and Daddy met and fell in love, we may have to give her an edited version. But that’s not for a while yet. How was it? In Dallas? I know it went smoothly enough, and I think it’s pure poetry that the man you framed wound up confessing.”

“Well, he thinks he did it.”

“And in a sense he did, because if he hadn’t made that first phone call you would never have left the hotel.”

“I probably wouldn’t even have gone. I’d have sent in a few mail bids and let it go at that.”

“So he got what was coming to him, and it doesn’t sound as though either of them was a terribly nice person.”

“You wouldn’t want to have them to the house for dinner.”

“I didn’t think so. But what I wanted to know was how was it for you? How did it feel? You hadn’t done anything like this in a long time.”

“A couple of years.”

“And your life is different from what it was, so maybe you’re different, too.”

“I thought of that.”


He thought it over for a moment. “It felt the same as always,” he said. “I had a job to do and I had to figure out how.”

“And then you had to do it.”

“That’s right.”

“And you felt the satisfaction of having solved a problem.”


“At which point you could buy that stamp without dipping into capital.”

“We only collected the first payment,” he said, “but even so it more than covered the cost of the stamps I bought.”

“Well, that’s a plus, isn’t it? And you didn’t have any trouble living with what you’d done?”

“I had trouble living with the secret.”

“Not being able to mention it to me, you mean.”

“That’s right.”

She nodded. “Having to keep a secret. That must have been difficult. There are things I don’t bother to tell you, but nothing I couldn’t tell you, if I wanted to. How do you feel now?”


“I can tell that. Your whole energy is different. Do you want to know how I feel?”


“Relieved, obviously. But also a little troubled, because now I seem to be the one with a secret.”


“Shall I tell you my secret? See, the danger is that you might think less of me if you knew.” Before he could respond, she heaved a theatrical sigh. “Oh, I can’t keep secrets. When you told me what happened in Dallas? What you did?”


“It got me hot.”


“Is that weird? Of course it is, it’s deeply weird. Here’s something I’m positive I never told you. It got me hot when you killed the rapist in the park. What it mostly did was it made me feel all safe and secure and protected, but it also got me hot. I’m hot right now and I don’t know what to do about it.”

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